Illustration by Miles Donovan
Manchester, England, 1973. It’s my final year at college. Funds are running low. I bump into a fellow student at a church hall jumble sale. After a childish and embarrassing tug-of-war over a 1930s fox-fur scarf thingy with heads and paws dangling off it -- Halloween was coming up and I thought I might slice the dead fox into a bikini and go as Raquel Welch from One Million Years B.C. -- we call a truce and pop next door to a filthy tea shop to commiserate about our financial woes over a cup of greige tea and a slice of gypsy tart.
Gypsy tart, I should explain, was a truly appalling, now-defunct British dessert which was so revolting -- the main ingredient was boiled, congealed tinned milk resembling pus -- that even writing about it makes me feel vomitacious. It is hard to imagine how we ate it, but eat it we did. In his stunning autobiography, the fabulous Keith Richards bravely confronts the horrors of gypsy tart and attempts to describe the taste: “Pie with some muck burned into it…”
Back to 1973. During the consumption of this hideous concoction, my pal excitedly tells me that she has found a new source of income. She has started to make extra cash by flogging her jumble sale thrift finds to fancy London vintage emporiums such as Antiquarius on Kings Road and the uber-groovy Virginia Bates on Portland Road. (Still in business and now selling bias-cut ’30s numbers and nifty Victorian capes to the likes of Kate Moss and Lily Allen.) Her new incarnation as a vintage picker explains the aggressive posture over the fox fur.
My pal also mentions, quite en passant, without batting so much as an eyelash, that she has figured out an additional way to take the financial pressure off: She now gives her landlord a monthly blowjob in lieu of rent. I was so stunned by this revelation that I choked on my gypsy tart.
At first, my pal thought that I was shocked or embarrassed, and she got all huffy and remonstrated with me for being judgmental. Once I stopped coughing, I was able to reassure her that, far from feeling judgmental, I was, in fact, filled with admiration for her entrepreneurial zeal. I would have said, “You go, girl!” except for the fact that this convenient phrase did not exist back then. So I probably said something old-fashioned and clunky, like “Goodness me! You certainly are a very enterprising young woman. Good luck with this exciting new direction which your life has taken!”
I was impressed. Very impressed. Very, very, almost irrationally impressed. My louche pal had unleashed something rather wicked within me.
The following evening, as if impelled by a supernatural force, I got all scrubbed and twinkied up and made my way in my platform shoes, vintage oxford bag trousers, and my copy of a Mr. Freedom satin jockey jacket to a working-class gay pub near the canal in the center of Manchester. This is where I often started my Saturday nights. A drink or two and then off to a chichi disco called Samantha’s. On this occasion I stayed at the pub with a pal called Vinnie, and got thoroughly smashed. I had a plan.
Vinnie was a trainee hairdresser. He was very open about the fact that, as a younger twink, he had been “on the game.” But Vinnie was now respectable and had put his tawdry past behind him, unless the rent was overdue, in which case he was anybody’s.
Drunken escapades, if you can remember them at all, are recollected in the jerky handheld-camera style of the early Andy Warhol movies. There are no gentle fades, just lots of abrupt cuts.
OPENING SCENE: Me and Vinnie are locked in an intense tête-à-tête as he schools me on how to play the role of rent boy. Apparently the key to being a prostitute is flaunting yourself. Flaunt! Flaunt! Flaunt! He tells me to unzip my jacket to the navel, wet my lips, open my mouth wide and, this is the most important part, bite the air in a tempestuous tigress-y fashion. “You are living for kicks! Yes, bite the air, like a dog catching flies. Bite! Bite! Bite!”
I am not sure how this flaunting and biting is supposed to attract potential clients, but I do it anyway, knowing that Vinnie has more experience in these matters. I am the trusting ingénue.
CUT. I position myself near the jukebox and start biting the air like a wild gypsy. Like a gypsy tart, if you will.
CUT. That’s me, drunk and disheveled and biting the air, clambering into the front seat of a banged-up Ford Cortina with an older bloke. This not-unattractive Charles Bronson type is concerned that I might spew my guts in his vehicle, thereby rendering it even more unsavory. I promise him that I will not defile his Fablon-covered dashboard.
CUT. Me taking hours to get my key in the door, the way drunks do, and still intermittently biting the air for good measure, just to keep the client happy. The Charles Bronson look-alike, who has a strong Northern accent, shouts, “What the fook is wrong with you? Stop twitching like that and get the fooking door open!”
CUT. Me and Charles Bronson are rolling amorously around the floor of my squalid student crash pad in our undies. We set off a mousetrap. Fortunately, nobody is injured. More rolling. (When, 40 years later, I heard Adele’s hit, “Rolling in the Deep,” I was probably the one person on earth who had a visual for the oblique lyrics.)
CUT. Close-up on my face. I am no longer biting the air. My expression has changed. My eyes consist of two crosses and my mouth is a zigzag. It’s a face that says, “I have done something stupid. I have broken one of Vinnie’s cardinal rules.”
CUT. Me and Charles Bronson, still rolling around, but now attempting to agree upon a fee for my services. Every time I throw out a number he reminds me that I have yet to pay my cab fare. That’s a surprise! Apparently that car, with the holes in the seats and the crocheted steering-wheel cover, is a taxi of some description, Charles Bronson being the chauffeur thereof.
The good news: He seems willing to play the role of john. I’ll make some money. It’s just a question of how much. The bad news: He’s an enthusiastic negotiator, adamant that whatever he ends up paying for “my services,” it would be subject to the deduction of his fare. He is, he maintains, a businessman, “just like yourself,” who desires to be compensated for his services.
More numbers are ping-ponged back and forth. More snuggling and rolling about. Some laughter. More haggling. Though not unpleasant, the whole experience was a bit like having a threeway with a calculator.
Much of the rest of the evening was a total blur. I do, however, remember one thing. The money. That measly fee.
Even back in the economically depressed early ’70s it seemed like a paltry amount. What was the un-princely sum that I finally extorted out of my customer over a cup of tea the next morning?
Three putrid quid.
OK, so I’m not Paul Newman, but I’m not Marty Feldman either, God rest his soul. Three quid. I had spent more than that buying Vinnie cheap cider!
There is something really gruesome about three pounds. Even now it makes me wince. Two might almost have been better. I distinctly remember lobbying for five pounds, having come down from 50, but every time he brought up that niggling outstanding cab fare—snog, grope, snog, grope—I could feel any advantage slipping through my fingers. So three quid it was.
In the cold light of the next day, I realized that I just might just be the world’s worst prostitute. I was tragic. No self-respecting pimp would ever have tolerated my bungling efforts. I was a shameful embarrassment to the world’s oldest profession and all who sail in her.
This passage was excerpted from Doonan’s new book, Gay Men Don’t Get Fat (Blue Rider Press, $23.95), which is out now.